Ben Lamb (as Percy Shelley) and Kristin Atherton (as Mary Shelley) - photo by Robert Day
However you look at it Mary Shelley deserves serious respect. As the offspring of a radical political philosopher and a renowned women’s rights activist and the lover and wife of a famous English romantic poet; you could be forgiven for expecting her to be a strange nineteenth century hybrid of a wag and an ‘it’ girl.
But she became so much more than the sum of her parts. By the age of nineteen she had penned one of the greatest novels in the history of the English language – a story so radical in it’s ideology that it changed the literary landscape forever.
Whilst Frankenstein may have since become associated with the various movie adaptations; from the iconic head and shoulder shot of Boris Karloff to the overblown dross of Kenneth Branagh – the novel itself is an amazing feat. As an exploration of life, humanity, love, creationism and moral responsibility it still remains unparalleled – and probably always will.
From L-R: Kristin Atherton (as Mary Shelley), Shannon Tarbet (as Jane Clairmont),
William Chubb (as William Godwin) and Flora Nicholson (as Fanny Godwin) - photo by Robert Day
This is a brand new play, first performed last month at the West Yorkshire Playhouse and put together by the Shared Experience, to celebrate the life of an author – and those of the people who surrounded her. The cast is small, but tight – featuring a company of just half a dozen and they’re clearly comfortable performing together.
It begins with Mary (played by Kristin Atherton) returning home to her father William Godwin (William Chubb – a recognisable face from TV shows such as Midsomer Murders and The Buddha of Suburbia), her stepmother and her sisters. The big news is that poet Percy Shelley (Ben Lamb) has been a regular visitor to the house and has made quite the impression on all of them. He’s also entered into financial transactions with Godwin to help keep his bookshop business going.
Fast forward twenty minutes or so and Percy and Mary have met and fallen in love. This happens despite his ‘married and expecting second child’ status - and despite her being aged just sixteen. When Godwin finds out, he pleads with her to never see Shelley again, but they are young and in love – and thus it was never going to work. Eventually she defies her father’s wishes, runs away with Shelley – and takes her younger sister Jane along for good measure.
Shannon Tarbet (as Jane Clairmont) and Kristin Atherton (as Mary Shelley) - photo by Robert Day
Thus begins the tale of a nineteenth century tabloid romance, where Mary and Percy trotted the globe and read, wrote and loved together. They appeared as figures of scandal in the newspapers frequently, not least when they hooked up with Lord Byron (who ultimately impregnates Jane – now known as ‘Claire’) for a stint in Geneva. They deal with tragedy when their young daughter dies and when their sister Fanny decides to end her life – and they work through it together. Eventually Mary is reconciled with her father when she and Percy finally decide to get married.
Ultimately this is a love story about the relationship of two of the most important literary figures of the nineteenth century and it’s an enjoyable piece. It’s well put together and features good performances from the cast, particularly from the fiery Atherton and the stubborn Chubb. Shannon Tarbet deserves credit too – her character (Jane/ Claire) is a tad one dimensional – but she hams it up well. The sets are well thought out, big bookshelves are omnipresent and a long dining table is used to convey a bed, a train, a desk and various other settings. I was hoping to get a glimpse of Byron too (who is referred to several times – but never actually portrayed onstage) but admittedly having him along may have thrown the play off kilter and into some kind of parody piece.
Suffice to say that Shared Experience, in association with the West Yorkshire and Nottingham Playhouses, have bought Mary Shelley’s story to life and most certainly have not created a monster.
Mary Shelley is showing at the Nottingham Playhouse until Saturday 5 May.
Shared Experience Theatre Company website